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Sass Rogando Sasot: Love Advocate

After a suicide attempt, “I lived with a deep sense of purpose: I would help initiate a transgender movement in the Philippines, and I’d like to become part of a group that would help initiate change in our society,” recalls Sass Rogando Sasot, who helped establish STRAP that now help to empower transpinays.

Sass Rogando Sasot
Co-founder, Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines

“Engaging in activism, especially in an advocacy work that is so close to your heart, can be so depressing and frustrating sometimes – but this kind of activism is about stimulating a paradigm shift, and history has shown us that paradigm shifts come not so easily, (with) a critical mass needed for deep-rooted change. You cannot create this critical mass, but you can be part of it,” says Sass Rogando Sasot.

“I got involved, and am still involved, in transgender (TG) activism and advocacy because of love.”

That, says Sass Rogando Sasot, is how she, well, got involved in GLBTQIA advocacy.

“My high school life was laced by intense doubt about everything handed to me by culture and tradition. I questioned the way things are. Blind conformity suffocated me.”

In 1999, as a fourth year high school student, “gender gender politics aroused my interest,” says Sass, who, at that time, had a relationship “with one of my classmates, (which) sparked a scandal in my school, an exclusive Roman Catholic school for boys. Everyone wanted to offer an explanation why my boyfriend fell in love with me: Was he insane? Or was he a homosexual? My boyfriend and I even had an awkward conversation about this, with me asking him: ‘Do you like me because I’m a boy?’  He said no. For him and for me, he was just a boy falling in love and having a relationship with a girl. But, ultimately, it was a non-issue for us. After all, it wasn’t gender identity nor sexual orientation that sparked the love we felt and shared with each other. Love, after all, is genderless, hence has no sexual orientation.”

Sass, of course, recognizes “that strange tenacity to force other people to define themselves so that we can bear the indefinability and immensity of life and love by turning them into spectacles of convenient labels,” she says. It was, after all, this tendency to define, i.e. in the “way people treated my boyfriend” that made Sass “so concerned to define my gender. This quest for definition led me to know and understand transsexualism (TS).”

GROWING PAINS

Sass’ earliest exposures to TS were through the Internet – understandably predominated by Western literature, so that “at an early age of 17, my brain devoured everything about transsexual issues. I read, through the website of symposion.com, the e-book version of Harry Benjamin’s seminal book, The Transsexual Phenomenon. I related so much to his description of transsexualism. From that moment, I considered myself as a transsexual girl,” she says.

Male-to-female transsexualism was, by the way, the subject of Sass’ term paper in her English class (then).

After self-identifying as a TS, Sass came out to her mother through a letter – and it would become one of the most painful decision she is to do in life.

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“Through a letter, I told her that I was not gay, that I was a transsexual, that I wanted to start taking hormones, and live full time as a woman. It was the first time I opened up to a family member,” Sass says.

Perhaps she should have anticipated the usual (negative) reaction, but “I thought she would be supportive. I was wrong. It alarmed her. She had my hair, which was below my chin (then), cut so incredibly short. She insisted that I am not a girl but a boy because I have a penis. And that instead of reading the stuff I was reading, I should start reading those that would forge a male identity in me. She advised me to start thinking ‘I’m a boy’ and nothing else. She assured me that there is nothing going to happen in my life if I insist on what I like and that my talent and intelligence would just waste away because society will never accept people like me. To cap it all, she threatened that she would not pay my college education if I would continue my delusion.’”

It was this reaction from a loved one that developed in Sass internalized transphobia – with her initial “acceptance that perhaps my mother was right,” especially since she had no one to turn to for support, so she came to think, too, that “There’s nothing good that was going to happen to me if I would insist on what I said I am: I would just end up as society’s entertainment. To go on existing like what she insisted me to be, which is as a man, and to live as what I felt myself to be, which is as a woman, were no different from being dead.”

Unhappy with her situation, and the seeming futility of living, Sass attempted suicide in December 2000.

PURPOSE DRIVEN

After Sass’ suicide attempt, “I lived with a deep sense of purpose: I would help initiate a transgender movement in the Philippines, and I’d like to become part of a group that would help initiate change in our society. I want a society that would cherish, value, and respect the flourishing of one’s individuality. My 20th century ended with this purpose flickering inside of me, driving me to go and explore the world,” she says.

That was after EDSA 2 (which saw the removal from the Office of the Presidency of Joseph Ejercito Estrada), sometime in January 2001, when Sass – after writing to volunteer herself to, among others, Amnesty International-Philippines and the Rationalist Humanist Society of the Philippines. The latter allowed her to meet “a group of free thinkers, passionate individuals, mostly from a generation senior than mine, who would like to propel secularism in the Philippines.”

Among the people Sass met were “Poch Suzara, a staunch atheist and humanist; and Margarita Ventinalla-Hamada, founder of Harvent School, a school in Pangasinan (a province in the Philippines) which doesn’t use grades and considers its students as individuals rather than a group of people receiving indoctrination”; and Aleksi Gumela, who “shared the same dance that I was dancing – a gay guy, an anarchist, an atheist, a freethinker, a bohemian, a philosopher, an artist, a creature of the counterculture. Aleksi shared the same zest for exploring life beyond tradition and conventions that was flickering in me,” Sass says.

It was Aleksi who introduced Sass to the Luneta University – a gathering of free-spirited radicals (meeting at the Chess Plaza), “self-styled rebels with a lot of cause,” who gathered for “discussions on philosophical questions: from art, to boredom, to god, to stupidity. We nurtured each other’s intellectual development.

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Sass Rogando Sasot: “Society is so genital-centric. The genitalia, a minuscule part of a person, become the most definitive part of the body – more than our brains. If you’re going to come to think of it, the male and female on our birth certificates, as well as the question ‘Are you boy or a girl?’ are all euphemisms to telling others and asking you what genitalia you have between your legs.”

The homeless, the vagabonds, and sidewalk vendors listened to our conversations. We wanted freedom from the fangs of hierarchy. We believed in no gods, in no masters, in personal liberation, in individuality, in diversity, in mutualism, in a voluntary society. We held Food Not Bombs sessions. We marched in anti-globalization rallies. But along our seriousness, we had our share of fun and deep belly laughter. It was our la vie boheme!”

It was this partnership with Aleksi that paved the way for the formation of the Luneta Freedom Collective (LFC), a counterculture performance art group that performed in “artsy” bars, in a zine convention, in an underground punk concert, in protest rallies, in a gathering of filmmakers in a full moon’s night, in the park, in schools – and it was this that allowed Sass to showcase Ayoko sa mundo nyo (I don’t want to be in your world), a monologue she wrote about the struggle for personal gender and sexual liberation.

KILLING THE SPIRIT

In May 2001, Sass experienced yet another blow of discrimination.

“It was from the college department of the school where I finished my elementary and secondary school. I was already aware that they were tough about ‘effeminate’ students – after all, it was a school with: 1) An official recommendation letter form that asked the person writing your recommendation, who was usually your class adviser and guidance counselor, to rate your masculinity from 1 to 10; and 2) That required ‘effeminate’ students, along with their parents, to sign a ‘pink form’ that acted as sort of contract that the student wouldn’t be ‘effeminate’ in school. These things were already horrendous, right? What they did to me was more deplorable – I wasn’t allowed to take the entrance examination,” Sass recalls, adding how “the head of the admission’s officer, Mrs. C, had the gall – or the conscience – to talk to me and explained right in my face why they were doing it.”

Supposedly, for being effeminate (sans recognition for her being for being a TS), Sass was considered a bad influence – “That they know that I was an intelligent student, but, since it was an all-boys’ school, a Catholic school, the way I presented myself would be problematic,” Sass says. “Then she tried to console me by giving me a dash of hope. Sensing my desperation, she issued some sort of a bargain: If I were willing to act as some kind of a role model to the younger years, they might consider me. That I would show that I have changed, that I have let go of my ‘old ways,’ that I would clearly demonstrate that I was a reformed flamboyant effeminate who finally embraced and accepted his masculinity.”

Sass, of course, couldn’t live a lie.

At that time was when Sass got connected with the Task Force Pride (TFP) Philippines, the group that organizes the annual Pride March in Metro Manila – a group that, for a while, was in the receiving end of Sass’ anger, blamed for “claiming that they were representing LGBTs, even if they didn’t really understand transgender issues, and that what they were doing was just tokenism.” It was select people from TFP (particularly Malu Marin and Ging Cristobal) who encouraged Sass to form a transgender group.

RISE OF STRAP

That discrimination is done even by those suppose to fight anti-discrimination is a fact, e.g. On July 29, 2001, the Regional Director of the Commission on Human Rights in Cebu, Attorney Alejandro Alonzo, commenting on a TG being barred entry to a club in Cebu City for wearing women’s clothing, was quoted as saying: “They (gays) should wear proper attire, and I don’t think (the club’s policy is) a violation because customers should follow the house rules. There should be appropriate attire because they are governed by dress code.” He added: “If you’re a man, you should wear the apparel of a man or vice versa.”

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The continuing discrimination – and lack of representation to speak in behalf of the discriminated – led in 2002 a meeting between Sass and Jane, who agreed to meet to discuss the formation of a transgender support and advocacy group, the Society of Trans and Gender Rights Activists of the Philippines (STRAP).

In July of 2002, Sass met Vee (through a common friend), and then in November in 2002, Sass met Dee (who read a transcript of Sass’ speech delivered in Italy on the website of Transgender Asia Research Centre), leading to another meeting in December 2002, when STRAP was “formally” established.

Unfortunately, for its lack of focus (“After all, the transgender community is such a broad and diverse group with so many issues and concerns,” Sass says), STRAP was only active for a year and then became dormant.

In March 2003, Sass then became a research assistant for Dr. Sam Winter, centre director of Transgender Asia Research Centre (TARC), which did a study on male-to-female (MTF) transgender people in the Philippines, particularly in the three major cities of Metro Manila, Metro Cebu, and Metro Davao.

Interestingly, completion of the research (done in 2003 and 2004, with the output published in the Volume 11 of the International Journal of Transgenderism, the journal that Sass herself used to read in high school) triggered “one of the most depressive episodes, so far, in my life. As I was talking to respondents, I got so immersed into their stories. I felt their hopelessness, their apathy, their utter resignation that ‘it’s just the way things are.’ I became extremely jealous of their resignation. I envied their apathy.”

Sass, at first, “did all escape possible to get out of this crisis. I partied a lot. Dated a lot. I did everything to make my depression bearable. My life was in chaos. I was so lost, lost, lost, and lost. I could no longer recognize who I was.”

In October 2004, Sass decided to go back to her family, “hoping to retrace my footsteps and find what I had lost along the way.” This meant becoming “masculine” – something that made her mother happy enough to send Sass to school again; though the stay only lasted for a year, when Sass was able to “slowly emerge from the abyss I had fallen into.”

On May 20, 2005, Sass met up with Dee and Veronica to re-launch STRAP – this time, “making (it) focus on one issue (which in itself is complex enough) to make it more effective and efficient in the long run.” STRAP, despite retaining the acronym, was also renamed as the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines.

In October 2005, Sass decided to finally “end my masquerade – since there was no way I could live as a woman and be with my family, I left them. I stayed with friends and worked in call centers.”

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By then of course, she has already become one of the key voices to represent the TG and TS community – e.g. in 2006, Sass served as a moderator for the opening plenary session of the First Transgender Rights Conference (also during the 23rd International Lesbian and Gay Association or ILGA World Conference) in Geneva, Switzerland.

In 2006, too, after a friend (Sophia) helped her, Sass secured an educational grant, so she is now back to school, taking up Human Resource Management at the Open University of Hong Kong.

BIG INSPIRATIONS

“I prefer the word inspire to influence because the people I encountered in my life inspired me to spark by myself this passion rather than influence me to have this passion,” Sass says.

Sass Rogando Sasot: “I prefer the word inspire to influence because the people I encountered in my life inspired me to spark by myself this passion rather than influence me to have this passion.”

Among those to inspire her include: “My boyfriend in high school was so supportive of my interest – we saw a book (Patrick Califia’s Sex Changes: The Politics of Transgenderism) in the book section of Tower Records sometime in 2000, and he bought it for me, and that took my journey into the world of transgender activism and gender and sexuality issues into a much deeper level.”

And then, since her days in Luneta, her friend Aleksi; FTM activists (“My first real mentors”); Jamison Green (“An FTM activist and an international transgender activist – I consider him as my first mentor”); Dr. Stephen Whittle, OBE (one of the founding members of Press for Change UK, and one of the writers of the Yogyakarta Principles); and Briton Sophia (“who helped me have education”).

And then there are Dee Mendoza (“Current chairwoman of STRAP, who inspired me to be diplomatic); Pau Fontanos (“Her hard work for the community has been a constant source of inspiration”); Bemz Benedito, secretary of Ang Ladlad Party List (“who stood up for her dignity in the sexual harassment case she filed against a co-worker”); Ms Georgina Beyer, a former Member of the Parliament of New Zealand, the first transsexual person in the world who was elected as an MP; and the women of STRAP (“They have been a constant source of joy and courage. They have widened my understanding of life, in general, and of living this kind of life, in particular”).

Becoming a TG activist hasn’t been easy – but it’s always fruitful, says Sass. “Engaging in activism, especially in an advocacy work that is so close to your heart, can be so depressing and frustrating sometimes – but this kind of activism is about stimulating a paradigm shift, and history has shown us that paradigm shifts come not so easily, (with) a critical mass needed for deep-rooted change. You cannot create this critical mass, but you can be part of it.”

FACING CHALLENGES

“Being a transgender person is fraught with so much difficulty. Generally speaking, opportunities in life are already scarce. But the prejudice against people who violate gender norms raises the cost of getting an opportunity for people like us,” Sass says. Living as a TG “can be a lonely life. Having a loving relationship can be so difficult. Non-transsexual people don’t need to explain to whoever they are dating that genitals they were born with. There’s always that worry that people will reject you not because of you, as a person, but because you don’t fit the standard definition of what it means to be male or female.”

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This is why, for Sass, advocating TG rights is important – and this is even if “doing advocacy work for TG people is like talking in a foreign language. How do you explain to people your internal reality, considering that most of us are too lazy to scratch beneath the surface and question the assumptions handed over to us by tradition? Moreover, society is so genital-centric. The genitalia, a minuscule part of a person, become the most definitive part of the body – more than our brains. If you’re going to come to think of it, the male and female on our birth certificates, as well as the question ‘Are you boy or a girl?’ are all euphemisms to telling others and asking you what genitalia you have between your legs.”

Sass elaborates: “I face the personal challenges of being a transgender person by appreciating the things that come my way, no matter how insignificant they seem. Just like in creativity, we get acquainted with happiness through the simple things in life. The world is certainly not beautiful all the time, but it’s also not just about hate, violence, despair, and all those horrible things. The beauty of a sunset, the elegance of a crescent moon, the eloquence of a shared laughter, the unselfish sound of rain, is all greater than the pain and loneliness we experience in this world.”

As an advocate, Sass considers an achievement “being able to inspire people to take the responsibility to stand up for themselves. Sometime in January 2009, while I was in Malate with friends, someone approached me and asked me whether I’m Sass Sasot. She was a young woman of transgender experience. She told me that she was inspired by the article I wrote for (the now defunct) ICON Magazine and that she was inspired to follow her dreams wherever it will take them. That moment was just so heartwarming.”

There remain challenges, obviously – and not just for Sass and/or the TG community, but the whole GLBTQIA community.

“This is what disappoints me: the current lack of dialogue in the community – this prevents us from having a united front,” Sass says, adding that she is, nonetheless, inspired by GLBTQIAs “who have an intimate affair with their courage.”

For Sass, there are three issues the Filipino GLBTQIA community has to focus on, i.e. 1) The passage of the Anti-Discrimination law (“We need legal remedies if we experience unfair discrimination based on our sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression”); 2) Dialogue with the business and school communities (“The key players in these two sectors can pave the way for making the workplace and schools in our country safe for sexual and gender diversity”); and 3) Passage of a Gender Recognition Law similar to that of the UK and Spain (“It’s about time that the lived gender identity of transsexual people be reflected on their legal papers “).
With these, Sass, not surprisingly, intends to “follow the beating of my star, keep on drumming my own drum, and perhaps, along the way, find someone I can share my song with. Life is always throwing me in directions where I always get involved with transgender issues, so you can expect me that in whatever I do in life will be along these lines or at least intersects with it.”

STANDING PROUD

Pieces of advice are, says Sass, oftentimes a result of one’s frustration in life; “but if you insist that I give them, here they are: First: remember that you are doing it for yourself. This may sound as an egoistic way of approaching advocacy. I’m not a fan of advocating ‘selflessness’ as I firmly believe that selflessness cannot be advocated, to campaign for it is to kill it. Know and understand yourself, don’t be afraid of your own shadow, and that of others,” Sass says.

She then adds that, second: Always remember that you are part of any system you are against, you were born out of it, you live in it. The system does not exist independently of us and we don’t exist independently of it – we build it as much as it builds us. We are not above, beyond, nor outside of it. Everyone is both a demon and an angel in this intricate web of oppression. To dismantle the system is to dismantle your self – be prepared, for it takes so much courage and honesty to accept this.”

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And “third: In the course of your advocacy, you may affect some changes in policy, but these, at best, no matter how much we fought for them, are cosmetic ones. Change, like in matter, comes in subtle ways and this is the change that is transformative and the one that you will unavoidably exude after you yourself flow at one with the change you want in others. Light doesn’t preach to darkness, the night simply knows its time is over and gives way to daylight.”

It is still love that drives Sass now.

“Best lesson learned in life? That we are more than our pain and suffering. No matter how many times we fall, it is inevitable that we will stand up again,” Sass ends. “And if you want a lasting revolution, then LOVE! – dance with it!”

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